Tuesday, 16 October 2018

A Bernstein Celebration - London Song Festival

Bernstein conducting the New York City Symphony Orchestera (1945)
Bernstein conducting the
New York City Symphony Orchestera (1945)
A Bernstein Celebration; Lucy Knight, Sophie Goldrick, Grainne Gillis, Alberto Sousa, Felix Kemp, Will Thomas, Nigel Foster; London Song Festival at Hinde Street Methodist Church Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 13 October 2018
From musicals to Songfest and rarer items, a wonderful celebration of Bernstein in song

If you are presenting a recital of Schumann song, then finding a replacement for an ailing singer at short notice is at least usually possible. But if your recital is of unusual or lesser-known repertoire, then problems increase. 

Nigel Foster launched his 2018 London Song Festival on Saturday 13 October 2018 at Hinde Street Methodist Church with a celebration of all things Bernstein, excerpts from the musicals, and the song cycles La Bonne Cuisine, I Hate Music! and the vastly underrated Songfest. Of the planned singers, alto Grainne Gillis, tenor Alberto Sousa, baritone Felix Kemp and bass Will Thomas were present, whilst soprano Lucy Knight came on board at two weeks notice, whilst mezzo-soprano Sophie Goldrick joined the cast at a mere two days notice.

Thanks to an heroic amount of speed-learning, the programme went ahead pretty much as planned. We lost two or three items and gained one, thanks to Goldrick's recent experience in Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti. The biggest loss was two movements of Songfest, but we should be thankful that thanks to a great deal of hard work, such an unusual and enlightening programme went ahead.

We started with three songs from La Bonne Cuisine, Bernstein's 1947 song cycle setting texts from a French cookbook! Originally written for a single singer, here the songs were split between Lucy Knight, Grainne Gillis and Will Thomas. Varying from the rapid patter of Plum Pudding, through the exoticism of Tavouk Guenksis to the dramatic Rabbit at Top Speed, words count in these songs and only Will Thomas managed the challenge perfectly, getting his Rabbit out in brilliant style.

We moved to musicals for the next group, starting with a sparkling performance from Lucy Knight in Glitter and be Gay from Candide, with Knight combining engaging charm with fine coloratura, and clarity in the words.
Felix Kemp followed this with rarer fare, a thoughtful performance of Who am I? from Peter Pan, a play with music from the 1950s (plans for a full-blown musical foundered on the cast's lack of musical ability!). Then two songs from On the Town, Bernstein's 1944 musical with Comden and Green. Alberto Sousa gave a nicely put over account of Lucky to be me, bringing out the words and not making it too operatic, whilst Will Thomas got the right combination of comedy and pathos in I Understand.

Lucy Knight then sang I Hate Music! A Cycle of Five Kid Songs. The work was premiered by Jennie Tourel in 1943, and the five songs are a fascinating essay in what children might think rather than being children's songs. As such, the words are of prime importance and I thought Knight could have made more of them, though she moved easily between the various styles of the songs from witty, to riddling, simple and plangent.

Composed to celebrate Irving Berlin's centenary in 1988, My Twelve-Tone Melody is a curious amalgam of serial material with two Berlin songs! Comprising three contrasting lines, from Lucy Knight, Grainne Gillis and Sophie Goldrick, this was musically secure but the words were not clear and the point of the piece escaped me.


Gillis, Kemp and Goldrick shared 100 Easy Ways to Lose a Man from Wonderful Town  (Bernstein's second, 1953, collaboration with Comden and Green), creating a delightful ensemble where the fluid gender of the protagonist lent spice to the proceedings. When my soul touches yours is a 1949 setting of Rainer Maria Rilke in translation, striking, serious and dramatic it is not obvious Bernstein and received a strong performance from Grainne Gillis.

We returned to musicals for There is a garden from Trouble in Tahiti. In the piece, Dinah is narrating a dream, and the result is curious and intriguing, and it received a fabulous performance from Sophie Goldrick. Then Felix Kemp sang Some Other Time from On the Town; this was originally a quartet, and Kemp made it work well as a solo, giving a poignant account of the words (wonderfully clear) with a fine strong tone and sense of line. Here is was sexuality that was fluid, as with the words unchanged Kemp's character regretted a variety of things including 'watching you shave!'.

Another stand-alone song, Silhouette (Galilee) was written as a gift for Jennie Tourel in 1953. It incorporates a Lebanese folk-song, and Sophie Goldrick, Alberto Sousa and Will Todd made the most of the songs atmospheric melismas. Another serious song, this time from 1968 and originally sung by Barbra Streisand (!); So Pretty is an anti-war song sung from a child's point of view. It received a poignant and deceptively simple performance from Grainne Gillis.

We finished the first half with a semi-staging of Gee, Officer Krupke from West Side Story, with Felix Kemp, Will Thomas and Alberto Sousa having great fun on stage and conveying their enjoyment to us. A lovely way to end the first half, exploring Bernstein's highways and byways.

The second half comprised ten songs from Songfest, a cycle of twelve songs (originally with orchestra) for a group of singers. Bernstein's selections of poetry is eclectic, the cycle was written for the bi-centennial in 1976 (but wasn't ready until 1978) so Bernstein aims to cover 300 years of American history from a 17th century Puritan, through Edgar Allan Poe to beat poet Gregory Corso. The sheer eclectic nature of the choices lead to some tricky questions potential performers need to ask, is it OK for a non-Hispanic singer to perform Bernstein's setting of a Spanish poem by Puerto Rican poet Julia de Burgos, and what about a non-Black singer performing Langston Hughes I, Too, Sing America (one of the items omitted).

We opened with all the singers performing the setting of Frank O'Hara's To the Poem though the satire on patriotic hymns was rather lost because words were very fuzzy. Felix Kemp gave us some engaging story-telling (and great words) in the 12-tone blues THe Pennycandystore beyond the El (setting Lawrence Ferlinghetti). Lucy Knight was poised but careful in A Julia de Burgos, only at the end did she bring real zing to the song. Will Todd combined his rich, dark voice with some powerful words in Walt Whitman's To what you said.. (where Whitman addresses his homosexuality in verse), to create something really moving.

Bernstein set To my Dear and Loving Husband, by Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet, for female trio (Knight, Goldrick and Gillis). It is a complex piece, and the performance did not quite rise above this complexity. Knight and Todd followed this with the wonderfully spiky dialogue of Storyette HM, setting the elliptical text of Gertrude Stein.

Everyone joined in the jazzy setting of e.e. cummings "if you can't eat you got to", and though musically enjoyable, the words were a bit fuzzy. Alberto Sousa made the interestingly exotic Zizi's Lament (a poem about an ageing North-African entertainer by the beat poet Gregory Corso) wonderfully direct and dramatic. Gillis brought out the lyrical intensity of Bernstein's rather expressionistic setting of Edna St. Vincent Millay, What Lips my Lips have Kissed. And we finished with another ensemble piece, the remarkably complex Israfel setting Edgar Allen Poe.

The London Song Festival continues throughout October and into November, the next concert Circles within Circles is a celebration of the life and friendships of composer William Busch, on 20 October 2018 at Hinde Street Methodist Church. Full details from the festival website.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Hansel & Gretel: a nightmare in eight scenes (★★★) - theatre review
  •  Something for everyone: Gershwin's Porgy and Bess from English National Opera (★★★★)  - opera review
  •  Handel's Radamisto from English Touring Opera (★★★★½) - Opera review
  • Portrait of a life (or many): Art songs from the African diaspora (★★★★) - concert review
  • Crowd-funding & collaboration: new choral music from Lumen  - interview
  • Double concerto for bandoneon and violin (★★★½) - CD review
  • The choral music of Richard Allain (★★★½) - CD review
  • Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots returns to the Paris Opera - Opera review
  • Modified Rapture: Verdi's Aida from the Met (★★★½) - Opera review
  • The Emperor's Fiddler - violinist David Irving on historical approaches on his new disc - interview
  • Schubert's Winter Journey - Robin Tritschler and Malcolm Martineau at Wigmore Hall  - (★★★★★Concert review
  • Swan songs - Gerald Finley and Julius Drake at Temple Song  (★★★★★)  - Concert review
  • Love & Obsession: Robert & Clara Schumann and Brahms at Conway Hall - concert review
  • New dance double bill from New English Ballet Theatre & The English Concert (★★★★)  - Ballet Review
  •  Home

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